Position Paper on:Vietnam Veterans comprising the largest part of reunion groups. How that fact should guide in the proper restoration of USS ORLECK. A permanent mooring for the ship is the main need of the ship at this time. Such a mooring will insure her success into the future as the most sought after museum ship.
By Robert Orleck
Written on December 3, 2013 (revised April 8, 2014)
Our San Diego reunion will happen in August of 2014 and it is shaping up to be a great time of enjoyment as we look forward to gathering with friends, family and shipmates. The major jobs for all of us there will be to; have a good time, remember past service and celebrate. While those are the major items to be addressed, there is another matter that should be thought about long before we arrive at the Town and Country Resort in August of 2014. The issue revolves around our decision made at the Northern Kentucky reunion regarding having a reunion at Lake Charles, LA with the USS ORLECK in 2016. We agreed to pursue this option in Northern Kentucky contingent on her having a permanent mooring by the time we meet in San Diego.
So with my Destroyer USS ORLECK Association planning hat on I have been preparing to present alternatives if that permanent mooring is not had by then. I will be prepared to present Virginia Beach/Norfolk as the alternative and possibly one other city that I am looking at. For most of you who attended Northern Kentucky, I would assume that this approach makes sense and that is all that needs to be thought about until we learn of any progress in Lake Charles to get USS ORLECK a permanent mooring. But that is not necessarily so.
Most of you know that I was very opposed to our ship going to Lake Charles, especially when there was another alternative that offered her a greater chance of success and survival. At that time I saw no future in such a move. That opposition was based on very good reasons that history has proven to be accurate but there is no need to detail that or revisit it any further. In addition in the past I never saw interest coming from the city of Lake Charles except for the dedicated group of individuals represented by the likes of Ed Martin. (I now see a potential change in that interest, at least I am hopeful that is so.) It has been fifteen years since USS ORLECK DD 886 was returned from Turkey and in terms of establishing her as a permanent museum, the first ten years were a total loss. Even though there has been progress made to establish her in Lake Charles, without a permanent mooring she is still in a state of limbo and will not reach her potential. In fact there will be very few groups, if any, faced with the uncertainty of her existence that will commit to coming and planning a reunion around her. Such planning takes at least a year and as with ours two years and there needs to be certainty.
The USS ORLECK is a treasure and would provide any city who opened their arms to her a great value of rich history and ongoing revenue for those who would come to experience that history. Over the years that the locust ate, demographics have changed that I believe will benefit the reality of the USS ORLECK excelling as a Vietnam era warship museum in Lake Charles thus restoring some of that lost time. It is now up to the city of Lake Charles for one simple reason. She is there and to survive she must have the support of the city. With a permanent mooring she will be the museum we all knew she could be. She has weathered storms of nature and other rough waters following her 2000 Orange homecoming but through it all, and in spite of it all she is still with us. She has experienced indignities that she should have never faced. Her years of service, thirty seven to the United States and sixteen to Turkey were times of excellence, as her crews will attest and should have earned her a dignified retirement. She did not get that but she is still in existence and for that we should give thanks. Is it possible that the dream is still alive?
So what is it that has changed that might result in her emergence as a successful ship museum? Time itself may have proven to be her best ally and for the real possibility that she could be the most sought after reunion ship and Lake Charles the most sought after city because she is there. If I am correct and the right things are done in reaction to the breaks she has gotten this could guarantee her a continued life including that good retirement. It is amazing how time can change things. It was not until 2014 that it was recognized that USS ORLECK DD 886 was the most decorated warship afloat in US Naval history since WWII. (that will be discussed in another post.) Time did not change the ship but it did change the actions and abilities of those who served aboard her during her thirty seven years of service to our country.
What time has done with Vietnam era sailors will dramatically change the mission that ship museums have now, compared to what their mission was, say even ten to fifteen years ago. Why? More of Vietnam Veterans are participating in reunions now than before. Their numbers are replacing those of WWII and Korea. We are saddened at how many of our friends from those past eras we have lost but we cannot undo the effects of time. However, our association is blessed to serve men from not one, but three very different wars. The mission of museum ships, while still dedicated to all and we must never forget what was done by our WWII and Korean warriors, will now focus on Vietnam Veterans and their experiences because the time is theirs.
I started to notice this shift in attendance during the last couple of reunions for the USS ORLECK. USS ORLECK is one of those unique ships that had two configurations. Having undergone FRAM conversion (1962 Fleet Rehabilitation and Modernization program in which Gearing Class Destroyers were torn down from the hull and rebuilt with new weapon systems and more), she could never again look like her WWII or Korea configuration. The attendance at reunions by that group of sailors was high in spite of the fact that the she looked so different from the ORLECK they served on. That was even the situation when we held the reunion at the ORLECK in Orange, Texas in 2002 where 470 were registered to attend.
We have always encouraged and sought out participation by Vietnam sailors as much as we did WWII and Korea but their attendance did not increase dramatically until recent reunions. Why? I am certain the reason for the low representation of Vietnam vets during our first years as an reunion group had in some part to do with them still working along with raising and educating their children. In the past five to ten years many of them have reached retirement age, their kids are educated, have left home and are raising families of their own. Now these sailors have time to attend reunions and many of them are. There is no doubt that they are as much in love with their ship and proud of their service as any crew of sailors who ever sailed her. I gain extreme pleasure doing reunions for them and getting to know them as I did with their older brothers-in-arms. Now Vietnam vets will make up by far the largest percentage of attendees at our San Diego reunion. Other ship associations tell me that Vietnam sailors now make up a major majority of their attendance as well.
USS ORLECK DD 886 represents the best that was in Vietnam and coupled with the ever increasing involvement at reunions of sailors from that era, the picture I am trying to paint becomes clearer. Her name is held in high regard throughout the world and especially the world of destroyer sailors. If she were restored to this Vietnam time period, and done well, she would stand out as the premier Westpac museum ship for that period of history.
I have been doing reunions for the USS ORLECK from the beginning and believe I can speak as an expert in this area. Phil King, XO for USS ORLECK does reunions for other ships and I feel certain he would tell you as well that those who do ship reunions are always looking for that special city to do a special reunion for their special ship. Any city that would have a properly restored USS ORLECK would qualify as that special city. Lake Charles right now, happens to be the city that has the chance to embrace this opportunity. I am hopeful that when they realize the treasure they have this will awaken a desire in them to help and insure the success of the project. If they do not and USS ORLECK cannot get a permanent mooring I hope that there is another city that would understand the value of embracing our ship, the dream, and take her in.
Thus, Lake Charles is poised to become the most desired reunion destination point for the many destroyer organizations out there. A lot of support will be needed from individuals, businesses and government. These interests will benefit from reunion groups coming to their city. If this vision catches their attention I would expect many of them to come alongside to help provide the needed support to properly return the ORLECK to a state of apparent readiness and the dream will become a reality. It just takes people who believe! Can you just picture it? All the elements coming together to allow for this last chance for the dream! It can be! Having a permanent mooring will set the wheels in motion for big things in Lake Charles.
So what should we do as an Association? The sad part is that we are not as young as we were when we did strip trips, field days and the like back when we made our attempt to make her stay in Orange a success. The glad part is we have made a lot of friends from other groups who have sadly lost their beloved ship to the scrap yard. There should be enough of them who would want to come, not only during reunions, but at other times to relive their times aboard their ships, to do work days and help the ORLECK Museum carry out their mission of restoring USS ORLECK to that desired time. So we should consider doing work field days with sailors from other associations partnering with us and the ORLECK Museum. I am impressed by the continuing work that has been done on the USS KENNEDY DD 850 and I know that their tremendous expertise lead by Rich Angelini will be brought to the table to assist the USS ORLECK wherever she might be. Right now Rich and I have been and still are working on a Restoration Plan and updated history for USS ORLECK. Rich is doing the technical evaluation and writing and I am researching and writing the history. This can be used to set the course for her future restoration and for use in marketing her strengths to the community. With a good business plan and restoration plan, there is no reason to believe that the smart business people out there who know how to capitalize on such value, will do so for their city.
It will be also be up to the ORLECK Museum to want this and to request the help and I believe they will. I have spoken about this to both Ron and Ed and I got the impression they understand and would welcome such involvement. If I am right about that they can lead the way and we can come behind to help them make it happen. USS ORLECK has not been cut on nor experienced any major alterations. She is definitely cared about and loved. There is an opportunity in Lake Charles and with the right combination of expertise and resources she will make it. USS ORLECK is still with us and where there is life there is hope. What we need now is action in getting a permanent mooring and to move in the direction that time has offered us.
This is what we should be thinking about and I hope it brings a sense of excitement as we meet in San Diego in 2014. In the meantime, I will and I hope you will encourage others to join us, input their ideas right now and engage. We are a reunion organization and we will remain that first and foremost. We also love our ship and there is nothing inconsistent with helping the ORLECK Museum if they in fact have caught the vision and are working toward the proper restoration of this fine lady.
Time is both our friend and our enemy. We cannot let her remain in limbo for another fourteen years. These years are needed for her to make her mark on the ship museum world. We need these years to show our younger generations a properly restored Vietnam era ship so they will be able to see and know what our men did to protect their country and the world at that time. Time is right for that to happen. First it is up to the ORLECK Museum and to the City of Lake Charles to believe and move in this direction and if they do, then we and others will be there for them.
That big step and the one that will bring all the others and will bring success is the getting of a permanent mooring. Without it few planners will bring their groups. Uncertainty is just what a planner does not need. To do a good job planning a reunion you need to have a base of operation and a reason to be there. The reason will be a stable USS ORLECK Museum in a permanent mooring and the base of operation will be one of the fine Lake Charles hotels that will benefit thus bringing value to them and to their city. This should be the goal and it needs to be done quickly. Destroyer USS ORLECK Association, the largest single ship destroyer organization needs to know that USS ORLECK will have a permanent mooring. Without it the necessary planning cannot be done to insure the kind and quality of the reunions that organization does. Without a permanent mooring, that reunion group will probably not come to Lake Charles out of necessity even though that destination would be the one most desired by most of its members. Certainty is the key and that will come with a permanent mooring.